I have quite a few books in my TBR by Elizabeth Chadwick; my eyes are always bigger than my appetite when it comes to lengthy historical fiction. That and epic fantasy were my go-to genres for many years, but Chadwick wasn’t an author with whom I was familiar until recently. I bought quite a few of her books on sale at various points, and this month’s challenge was a good reason to get one out and actually read it. I’m glad I did.
This is the story of William Marshal, fourth son of a powerful father who came of age in the turbulent 12th-century English/Angevin court. He served Henry II, and in turn his sons Henry and Kings Richard and John, all while remaining devoted to Henry’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. He was a renowned tournament fighter, and he was respected by all the lords he served. This novel follows his early struggle to find a place for himself, and then the challenges he faced trying to loyally serve the royal family.
I really liked this book’s treatment of Eleanor of Aquitaine. She’s one of my favorite historical figures, as she both embodies and belies so many myths, hopes and fears about women’s power in an age when even royal women were chattel. To play her on stage in The Lion in Winter, I researched her life in both straight and fictional biographies. Some writers put me off with their treatment of her, but Chadwick didn’t — Eleanor in this book isn’t petty or pointlessly vindictive, but she’s aware of her power and prepared to use it in her own interests and her sons’. William’s relationship with Eleanor was a highlight of the book for me.
William married late in life, at the age of about 40, to an heiress in her late teens. They eventually had 10 children, and he seems to have treated her with love and respect. The book portrays this as something he learned about powerful from his dealings with Eleanor, which made sense. Isabelle is a good character, a strong, beautiful and practical woman, who rises to the challenge of being William’s partner and “safe harbor.” Their relationship was nicely romantic, and the book has a happy ending because they are both still alive and thriving.
Chadwick creates interesting and memorable minor characters as well; a lot of them are selfish and stubborn, particularly the kings and princes, but even they are portrayed with humanity and some sympathy. The story is involving, and true enough to the history that I didn’t feel that the fictional license taken was too much.
I wouldn’t quite put this book on the level of Sharon Kay Penman (my favorite author who deals with this same era of history), but it was enjoyable to read. It’s not as steamy as Phillipa Gregory’s novels, but it does acknowledge love and passion beyond the bedroom door. I lood forward to reading some of the related books (there are quite a few!), especially Chadwick’s planned trilogy about Eleanor.